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Eunice Foote Defined Global Warming First

Eunice Foote defined global warming through a series of simple experiments on the interaction between various gases and the sun’s rays. Understanding the extraordinary power of carbon dioxide gas to absorb heat, she made the connection between the concentration of that gas in Earth’s atmosphere and rising temperature. The year was 1856.

A clip from a New Zealand newspaper dated August 14, 1912 recently made the rounds on social media. The title reads: Coal Consumption Affecting Climate. It concludes that the burning of coal could be a problem in a few centuries.

Snopes verified the authenticity of the clip after many readers questioned its date. Early climate scientists conducted robust studies from the mid 1800s. Eunice Foote was one of the earliest of these. Although she published her paper in American Journal of Science and Arts in 1856, she did not receive credit for her findings until recent years.

Eunice Foote Blazed Multiple Trails

Eunice Foote (July 17, 1819 – September 30, 1888) holds an inspiring list of firsts. She was born in Connecticut but raised in New York. She attended Troy Female Seminary where that provided young women with an education that included scientific theory and math. John Perlin, author and visiting scholar in the UCSB Physics Department writes:

“At the time of the seminary’s founding, women were barred from colleges. Although academies for girls existed, their curricula were limited to such “female arts” as conversational French and embroidery.”

1848-Eunice Foote Foote attended the Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

“Not only did she sign the Declaration of Sentiments in support of its principles of equality for women in all spheres of life, she was one of five to write up the convention proceedings for publication.”

1856-Foote’s paper titled “Circumstances Affecting the Heat of the Sun’s Rays” appeared in The American Journal of Science and Arts 22, p. 383. This paper made her the first scientist known to have studied the warming effect of sunlight on carbon dioxide and to have suggested its role in the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect.

1856 and 1857-Eunice Foote published two papers in the study of physics. She was the only American woman. She was the first American woman to make that claim prior to 1889. Her 1857 paper was the first American woman’s work to be published in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1859 physicist John Tyndall who was a affiliated with the Royal Institution of Great Britain presented his research on the same topic Foote presented in 1856. He claimed that he was the first and only person at the time to conduct those studies.

According to Perlin, Foote’s work was printed with summaries and excerpts in scientific publications across Europe and America. It’s highly likely that Tyndall and others working in climate science were aware of her groundbreaking work.

Still, she did not receive appropriate credit for her work like the work of many female scientists of the 1800s. Among them were Margaretta Morris’s discovery of a new species of cicadas in 1846 and Williamina Fleming’s many discoveries in the field of astronomy through the later 1800s.

Again in 1896, Svante Arrhenius published his paper regarding the role of CO2 in the greenhouse effect. He speculated on the possible effect of global warming due to massive amounts of coal being burned around the world.

Still, Eunice Foote did not receive appropriate credit for her work like the work of many female scientists of the 1800s. Among them were Margaretta Morris’s discovery of a new species of cicadas in 1846 and Williamina Fleming’s many discoveries in the field of astronomy through the later 1800s.

Let The Greenhouse Effect Begin

Problems caused by coal burning were evident for centuries. George P. Landow, is Professor of English and Art History Emeritus, Brown University writes in Old King Coal:

“In 1306, King Edward I passed a proclamation prohibiting the burning of ‘sea coal’ due to the nuisance that it caused.” 

Fast forward through years of protests against coal to the 19th century when Charles Dickens wrote in Bleak House:

Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown flakes…Fog everywhere…in the eyes and throat…cruelly pinching the toes and fingers.”

According to Landow, pollution intensified with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s.

“Statistics reveal the striking increase of coal use in the eighteenth century. In 1700 Britain had an annual coal output of 2,985,000 tons of coal, yet increased mining saw that figure rise to 21 million tons by 1890. Industries during that period were using coal in ever greater numbers. Indeed, in 1800, there was a total of 2191 coal powered steam engines in use in various manufactories in Britain, and by 1907 that figure had risen to 7,734.”

Alarmingly, the largest source of smoke pollution “came from the domestic hearth.

America’s Growing Demand For Coal Warmed Our Globe

The same dynamic toward coal occurred in the ever-expanding United States. Wood warmed hearths initially as it had in England. But the gradual depletion of forests around population centers called for a new energy source. Even while British citizens were dying in toxic “London Fogs” the American demand for coal escalated

In Routes of Power, Historian of Energy, Environment, and Economics Christopher F. Jones writes:

“…the American mid-Atlantic region between 1820 and 1930, the construction of elaborate transportation networks for coal, oil, and electricity unlocked remarkable urban and industrial growth along the eastern seaboard. But this new transportation infrastructure did not simply satisfy existing consumer demand–it also whetted an appetite for more abundant and cheaper energy, setting the nation on a path toward fossil fuel dependence.”

Industries grew up around the use of coal. Railroad and mining tycoons propelled marketing campaigns into hyper drive. Investors were seduced by studies that indicated endless coal deposits in America. People were loath to migrate from cozy wood burning hearths and stoves to a new fangled form of energy. But by 1885, coal-burning stoves dominated the home market.

Despite early warnings from research on global warming starting with Eunice Foote, coal became our driving fuel source.

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